The phalanxes of fact-checkers already know who won the vice presidential debate. And they’ll rub in Democrat Tim Kaine’s fact-based victory tomorrow (so brace yourself @RealDonaldTrump).
But while the fact-checkers have their standards, they aren’t the same as everyone else’s. Most of the 50 million people watching the debate Tuesday night aren’t keeping fact-checked score at home. And with Donald Trump’s record on facts, it’s pretty hard to—even if you wanted to.
Which is why, around water coolers and elementary school parking lots—IRL, as they say—people will be crowning Kaine’s rival, Mike Pence, as the veep winner. In this election, more than ever, style is substance, and Pence has lent a sheen of statesmanlike authority to Trump’s record even as he was lying through his teeth.
Calm is important in these things. It seems presidential—which is part of why Hillary Clinton won the last debate. Throughout, Pence lulled the audience with a slow authoritative drawl, which he likely perfected in his earlier career as a radio talk show host. Pence masterfully drove home key points by looking directly into the camera, looking like a sober, reasonable person even as he, say, lied about his running mate’s tax record.
Kaine, meanwhile, almost never looked into the camera. Until the end of the evening, most of his remarks sounded like stale talking points. And his attack-dog efforts to call out Pence sounded like so much yapping. It looked desperate—which is unfortunate given that in pretty much every instance, Kaine had a pretty good point. Against Pence’s suave dismissals, Kaine’s calling him out on the facts just made him look faintly rabid.
True, there were moments where Kaine had the upper-hand. When he pinned Mike Pence down on Trump’s plans for social security, immigration, and degree of cuddliness with Putin, the Indiana governor indeed squirmed, wrenching his face into weird smirks and nodding a lot.
But those moments were few, and very far between the staid fib-laden litany of Pence’s explication of Trump policy stances. Most of the time, Pence carried off lies or distortions of Trump’s policies with aplomb—like when he blamed Kaine for running an “insult-based” campaign for simply bringing up all the nasty things Trump has said. In some cases—social security, for instance—Pence even seemed unaware of the things his running mate had said. Even then, his cool denials made Kaine look like an over-exercised Sunday school teacher.
It will be tempting for Democrats to think that it won’t matter that Pence won on style alone. But style matters, even in years that haven’t descended into surreality. And this election is more superficial than most; Trump has made facts matter little at all. Now the poles of this election swivel around illusions of trustworthiness and untrustworthiness, with neither planted in reality as much as “feel.” In this debate, Pence’s self-assurance about his running mate’s policies—and his brushing off of facts to the contrary—lent him the credibility that neither Trump nor Clinton seems to be able to bring on their own.